Zero Effect (1998)

zero effect

“I told you, we can’t be too careful. Two guys in an airport… talking? It’s a little fishy.”

The Scoop: 1998 R, directed by Jake Kasdan and starring Bill Pullman, Ben Stiller and Kim Dickens

Tagline: The world’s most private detective.

Summary Capsule: You thought Sherlock was screwed up? Please, Holmes was just a cokehead… this guy’s got REAL problems.

Drew’s rating: Elementary, my dear Stiller.

Drew’s review: There were a lot of things I disliked about my freshman-year college roommate. He watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer tapes on my VCR nonstop, 24 hours a day. He could (and did) speak Klingon fluently. When our other roommate and a couple of friends were arrested for blowing up trash cans inside the dorm, he wouldn’t go visit them in jail. In fact, when security came calling, he narced them out for having alcohol in the room. And finally, right in the middle of one of the biggest swim meets of the year, he quit the team with no warning whatsoever. Ass.

So yeah, it’s safe to say we had our differences. But for all that, there’s at least one thing I owe him for, and that’s introducing me to this movie. Released in 1998, Zero Effect utterly failed to set the cinematic world on fire with its, I don’t know, two-week theatrical run and $23.50 box office gross. Don’t let that discourage you, though — if you’re any kind of a cult fan, this little-known gem is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The story centers around Daryl Zero (Pullman), the most brilliant detective the world has ever seen, as well as the most eccentric. Though gifted with amazing powers of deduction, Daryl is also a socially inept agoraphobic who can’t deal with anyone when he’s not on a case. Enter Steve Arlo (Stiller), his smarmy, disrespectful assistant who meets with clients, negotiates payments, delivers messages, the whole nine yards. But things are about to change, as Arlo decides to retire just as Daryl faces the most challenging case of his career, a blackmailer every bit as cunning as he is. And when he finally meets her, can the world’s greatest detective maintain his cherished objectivity, or will he fall prey to the one puzzle no man in history has ever managed to decipher: the female mind?

While Daryl is the star of the movie, I have to single out Ben Stiller for one of his best film performances to date. To me, the character works for exactly two reasons: one, he’s a reversal on the standard Watson formula. Instead of a dutiful sidekick, Arlo is clearly irritated by Daryl’s eccentricities and has no qualms about letting him know. He’s sarcastic, he’s disrespectful at times, he has zero interest in documenting Daryl’s methods, and he’s got a lot of pent-up frustration that makes itself known over the course of the movie. In other words, he behaves exactly how any of us would. But through all of that, he mirrors Watson in one critical element — his oddly touching devotion to an infuriating, detached, sometimes unappreciative friend. Arlo doesn’t particularly LIKE Daryl all of the time, but he cares about him, and he’ll do whatever it takes to try to protect and help him. It’s a tough relationship to convey, and I give Stiller a lot of credit for making it believable.

Which is not to say praise isn’t due to others as well. This is Jake Kasdan’s writing and directorial debut, but while he doesn’t really push the envelope in terms of cinematography, it’s a solid effort. One shot in particular impressed me — it involves Daryl making a rather major mistake, but it’s nicely subdued to the point where you might not make anything of it until it’s brought to light later… I didn’t, at least. Meanwhile, Pullman really makes the role his in a terrific way, and his interactions with Gloria (Dickens) add up to one of the more realistic relationships between two eccentric, emotionally damaged characters that I can recall. (And remember, I’ve seen Benny & Joon.)

I sometimes feel like we here at Mutant Reviewers face an uphill battle. As a cult movie website, we have a responsibility to open people’s eyes to off-the-beaten-path films they haven’t necessarily heard of before… but at the same time, if you’ve never heard of it, what’s going to make you want to go see it? I suffer no delusions about my persuasive prowess (witness my dating track record), but I’m telling you now — this is one entertaining movie that’s disturbingly unknown. I’ve never been able to figure out why it bombed (Kasdan admits in his commentary that the detective movie is one of the most overused in cinema, though he puts enough clever spins and good lines in it that odds are you won’t even notice), but it’s really not important: bottom line, you’d do well to check this one out. The game is afoot indeed.


  • Zero Effect is loosely based on the short story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which a foreign king hires Sherlock Holmes to recover a compromising picture given to his former lover Irene Adler, the contents of which could threaten his current engagement. Holmes ultimately fails in his efforts, though Adler leaves him a message complimenting his skills and promising that due to her own recent marriage, the picture will remain private. Though Watson tells us that his friend doesn’t entertain any romantic feelings for Adler, she does earn Holmes’s respect (the only female to ever do so), and is thereafter known by the honorific title of “The Woman.”
  • Director Jake Kasdan is the son of well-known writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Big Chill, among others. The younger Kasdan first met Bill Pullman on the set of one of his father’s movies, and years later wrote the role of Daryl Zero with him specifically in mind. Kasdan later worked as a writer/producer on Freaks and Geeks.
  • Daryl’s eventual title for this case is by far the greatest mystery name I’ve ever heard in my life.
  • Adding to the cult angle, Arlo’s girlfriend Jess is played by Angela Featherstone, AKA Ash’s “Hail to the King” conquest from Army of Darkness and Linda in The Wedding Singer.
  • There was almost a TV spinoff of the movie, with Alan Cumming cast as Daryl Zero, but NBC ultimately decided to pass on it.

Groovy Quotes

Arlo: I’m telling you, he never even leaves the house, okay. I mean he’s like some kind of recluse. A complete freak. No social life. In fact, no social skills. It’s a strange thing. When he’s working, the smoothest operator you’ve ever seen. Brave, slick, cunning, he can do anything. Soon as he gets off work, it’s all gone. Afraid to go to the dry cleaners. Literally. Too uncomfortable in his own skin to go out and eat. Tactless and inept. Rude too. Just a [jerk].

Daryl: I’ve been awake for three days. Three… just love those amphetamines. Got to love them. Got to love ‘em.
Arlo: Sounds healthy.
Daryl: It’s good for my skin. Did you know if you do enough of that stuff over a very short period of time, you get, like, these canker sores on your tongue? They bleed.

Daryl: I always say that the essence of my work relies fundamentally on two basic principles: objectivity and observation, or “the two obs” as I call them. My work relies on my ability to remain absolutely, purely objective, detached. I have mastered the fine art of detachment. And while it comes at some cost, this supreme objectivity is what makes me, I dare say, the greatest observer the world has ever known.

Arlo: Why are we talking on the phone?
Daryl: I told you, we can’t be too careful. Two guys in an airport… talking? It’s a little fishy.

Daryl: A few words here about following people. People know they’re being followed when they turn around and see someone following them. They can’t tell they’re being followed if you get there first.

Daryl: I can’t possibly overstate the importance of good research. Everyone goes through life dropping crumbs. If you can recognize the crumbs, you can trace a path all the way back from your death certificate to the dinner and a movie that resulted in you in the first place. But research is an art, not a science, because anyone who knows what they’re doing can find the crumbs, the wheres, whats, and whos. The art is in the whys: the ability to read between the crumbs, not to mix metaphors. For every event, there is a cause and effect. For every crime, a motive. And for every motive, a passion. The art of research is the ability to look at the details, and see the passion.

Gloria: How could you tell that I was a paramedic?
Daryl: Uh… you really wanna know?
Gloria: Yeah.
Daryl: I could smell iodine. That’s a very specific scent… it’s unique to ambulances and hospitals. I could see that your hair had been wet but dried naturally, but since I could smell the iodine I knew that you hadn’t gone home and bathed or scrubbed down since your last shift, and then I assumed that you had worked the night before when it was raining, and I figured paramedic, not doctor or nurse, that’s how I… just kinda guessed.

Stark: Is that your kid?
Arlo: Nope. Just a rental.

Daryl: Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.

Daryl: I told you about his thing for redheads, right? Guess what color his secretary’s hair is.
Arlo: Red?
Daryl: Men are so predictable.

Arlo: Are you telling me you can speak six languages and fly a jetliner but you don’t know how to file a tax return?… It’s never come up?… Does this have to happen right now?… No, that’s a “W-2.” “WW2” was the second World War.

Daryl: Take me to the scene of the crime! …uh, it’s a right up here.

Daryl: We’re the good guys!
Arlo: What… what are you talking about? There aren’t any good guys! You realize that, don’t you? I mean, you realize there aren’t evil guys, and innocent guys, it’s just, it’s just… it’s just a bunch of guys!

Arlo: I’ll shoot you. Really, I will. I have a gun and everything.

Daryl: After investigating her, I found myself in better shape than ever before in my life. To me, she will always be a singular unforgettable event- the only time I ever took leave of my objectivity. Perhaps the most able blackmailer of her time, she was at once the worthiest opponent and the greatest ally, and the only woman I have ever… the only woman, period. And though I never would’ve anticipated it, in the end she did for me what I have done for so many: help solve a problem, first by observation, then by careful intervention – in other words, the Zero Effect.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Young Sherlock Holmes
  • Clue
  • Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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